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My immediate geographic area is lacking an organized local GIS Users Group. I belong to a group that meets a couple times a year, but its about 1.5 hour drive. I'm thinking about starting up a Users Group for our County, we have about 50 users just in my organization that I think could benefit, not to mention the other users from different organizations.

Problem is, I've never done anything like this and don't exactly know where to begin. Does anybody have tips or pointers for how to start a group or how to make a GIS group successful?

  • 4
    This might make a good community wiki. – Radar Nov 20 '13 at 22:09
  • Thumbs-up ! We don't have one here too. – PROBERT Nov 20 '13 at 22:34
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We have had quite a lot of success doing this in 6 Australian and two South African cities under the banner of GeoRabble. Its About page describes the process for how GeoRabble "self-organizes" and we would be happy to try and help you get one off the ground.

Some things that have made GeoRabble successful are:

  1. The definition of a GIS Professional being expanded to include anyone who works with or is passionate about geospatial, including web developers and other non-traditional geo users - so you always get interesting and diverse presentations and attendees;

  2. There are no sales pitches or agenda driven presentations, so the talks and the networking are open, inclusive and more importantly - they are genuine.

  3. An informal setting (i.e. a pub!)

  4. There are no membership fees, and no need to join. We collect a modest amount of sponsorship to cover our minimal costs.

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I recognize that a few of these have been covered in other posts, but they are worth re-iterating. Here are my keys to organizing a successful user group:

  1. Your professional network. The most important part of a user group is each individuals professional network. You need personal interaction on a professional & educational level. Get the word out by contacting your immediate peers, and ask them to do the same. Contact yours and others contacts from LinkedIn.com in the regional area. Send out an email to any regional user group email lists that already exist, letting them know you are starting a new user group.

  2. Communication. Have a way to communicate with your intended (and new) audience. Meetup.com, Facebook, and plenty of other services offer ways to create an event for others to RSVP to.

  3. Understand the audience. One of the difficulties in organizing a user group is there is a wide range of topics and skill levels in the individuals who participate. Keep discussions or presentations short and interesting enough to keep everyone interested. Use something like SurveyMonkey.com to identify what your audience is most interested in.

  4. Organization. Have a regularly scheduled meeting times and places.

    • Maybe you meet the 2nd Tuesday of each month at lunch, or at 6:00, whenever, but make it so people can plan their schedule around it (if they choose to). Nothing is more frustrating than not knowing when, or if, the next meeting will occur. At the first meeting, have the group discuss and decide the optimal meeting frequency and time. You could even use something like Doodle.com to help automate that decision.

    • Have normal meeting places. Whether one organization wants to host all the meetings, or you want to have the location change, be sure that everyone knows where the next meeting will take place by the time they leave the preceding meeting.

  5. Participation. Instead of always having presenters, have periodic events where people can work on a project and interact with folks they normally would not have a reason to work with. Things like Hack-a-thons, a local OpenStreetMap mapping party, an OSM Humanitarian Digitizing Project or other such activities. Occasionally just let the membership plan out their meeting when they arrive using Lean Coffee or "unconference" concepts.

  6. Networking. Provide plenty of face-to-face networking time for individuals to meet new folks, ask the presenter to explain something, or just chit-chat. Sure, most people want to learn something new, but the main reason they will show up is for networking, in one sense or another. Maybe they are looking for a new job, looking for someone they can turn to when they get stuck, or maybe they are a 1 person shop who just wants to talk to someone else who understands that what we do is more than make pretty pictures.

  7. Cross-pollinate. Maybe your group would like to learn more about a certain programming language or database (for example). If you have a other non-GIS user groups in the local area, tap into their membership. Not only might you get some experts to present on a topic that you have limited knowledge in, you might also find some new members. Reciprocate by going back to that group and imparting some of your GIS knowledge on them.

  8. Lastly, make it FUN! Nobody wants to go to yet another boring meeting outside of work... they probably go to plenty of those AT work. Consider going to a bar, brewery, coffee shop, pizza parlor, or something similar before, after, or even during your meeting.

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While this isn't really a technical question related to this form, I think it is a really good question. How I would start is to use the power of social media. Begin by making a Google Page and Google Group. If you have people/members in your area that you would like to be apart of it, send them join requests. Now you will have some formality, and a means to communicate.

One thing you will want to do is identify the mission and purpose of the group. Are you looking to share ideas, go after work, get grants, save the world? I would suggest setting up an organizational structure to your group. If you are planning on being formal in any manor, you will want to have semi regular meetings, with an agenda. I would structure some roles within your group, such as president, VP, treasurer (if you plan to deal with money), and an individual to take meeting notes.

After this, there are lots of things you can do, but it will depend on the goal of the group. You may want to make ties/connections with local organizations, such as schools, college, university, government, business, environmental agency, etc. But again, it depends on the goals of the group.

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The Logistics Issue:

There are really two things that you need to get a GIS organization started:

  1. The network: There is a greater percentage of public sector GIS employees in the workforce right now than private sector. Therefore, attempts to build a GIS network should focus on inclusion of these employees. In my experience, an e-mail list is the most efficient way to build this network because not everyone has access to social media at all times (like at work) or choose not to be a part of social media.

  2. A centralized meeting location: You need a place where you can meet and optimally make presentations. GIS presentations make up the large bulk of my region's GIS meetings.

How to successfully start a GIS group:

The most effective GIS groups that are likely to draw the largest number of public and private sector GIS professionals are organized through the regional government level. In the United States, this is usually a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) such as a Council of Governments (COG). In other countries there may be regional government equivalents.

Such agencies likely already have access to contact information of GIS professionals and will almost always provide their location as a meeting area. Using this method will give you the added bonus of legitimacy and attract higher quality people. A normal GIS meeting in this fashion may have a half day's worth of presentations, lunch at a nearby restaurant, then another half day, then social at the bar afterward. If offically endorsed by a government entity, people can get paid by their employer to attend the miniature "conference".

If this is the kind of GIS group that you are seeking, I would get in contact with a regional government entity (possibly your county seat if you don't have a MPO) and find someone who is willing to give you access to the network you need (could just be a list of e-mail addresses). City halls and government buildings make great meeting places for GIS groups.

  • If any outside of US users know of their country's equivalent to the United States' regional government system (the Metropolitan Planning Organization), feel free to edit my answer with this information. – Conor Nov 20 '13 at 22:32
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I have been pretty fortunate with the GeoMeetup. We have 1300+ "geogeeks" in our mailing list and every time we meet between 100+ to 200+ people.

I agree with many of the points that other people have said... so let me give you a few extra approaches that I have taken. Of course, let me preface that by saying that it has worked for us but doesn't necessarily mean that it is the right thing for you. It truly depends on your audience.

  • The GeoMeetup is centered around geo-developers. This means that certain kind of people feel overwhelmed during the first meeting. That is OK for us. We want the conversation to get technical very fast, and in turn, that attracts the type of people that enjoy these topics. It is a trade-off that you are going to have to think through.

  • I would rather not have a GeoMeetup than to have it on schedule with a "so so" speaker. These means that our schedule is not consistent (from every month, to once every 3 or 2 months). If you look at the list of our past speakers you will understand what I mean. These goes against the way other very successful groups operate. Consistency does have its benefits. Again, it depends on your goals.

  • We always offer food and beer with at least 30 mins of buffer before we start. This makes it so that people can chit chat with one another. Tons of great conversations come from this.

  • We start the GeoMeetup by opening it as a public forum. Everyone gets a chance to do announcements to everyone else at the group. Some people are shy at first, but once they see other people doing this, they loose the shyness right away :)

  • Avoid blatant product pitches (and people who would do this). This is difficult, because inherently by talking about a private company, there is going to be some level of this. Nevertheless, it is your job as the organizer to check your speakers and make sure that you state that the content of the conversation should be directed towards a certain audience (in our case the target audience is "geo-developers" and not "potential users of your sharing app").

  • Make it fun! We heckle our speakers a little bit. We interrupt and ask questions. We give prices at the end. We go to a bar at the end. Fun makes for engaged people!

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